(CNSNews.com) - Donald Trump has portrayed himself as an immigration hardliner, but now he's showing flexibility on the issue. "I will say...in terms of immigration -- and almost anything else -- there always has to be some, you know, tug and pull and deal," Trump said on the Fox News debate stage Thursday night.
Trump also said "there is nothing wrong" with Sen. Marco Rubio's call to bring illegal immigration under control first, then see what the American people are willing to do about the 11 million aliens currently in the country.
Trump started his campaign by insisting he would deport the millions of illegal aliens in this country, allowing only the "good ones" to come back in. He also said he would build a big, beautiful wall on the southern border.
In response to debate moderator Megyn Kelly, Trump said he had a "very nice meeting" with the New York Times editorial board in January, some of which was off the record. "And I think being off the record is a very important thing. I think it's a very, very powerful thing," he said.
But some of what Trump said during off-the-record moments has leaked. So Kelly asked Trump if he really is backing off his firm stance on immigration: "Did you tell them, specifically, that you are flexible when it comes to your deportation plan?" she asked.
"I will say...in terms of immigration -- and almost anything else -- there always has to be some, you know, tug and pull and deal," Trump responded. "And, you know, when I watched (Sen.) Ted (Cruz) stand on the Senate floor, I had great respect for what he did. He stood there for a day-and-a-half or something (in support of defunding Obamacare). In the meantime, what came of it? Nothing.
"You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation. Now, sometimes you ask for more than you want and you negotiate down to the point. I may have discussed something like that with the New York Times, but I would never release off-the-record conversations. I don't think it's fair, frankly, to do that to anybody."
"How flexible are you on this issue?" Kelly tried again.
"Not very flexible. No, not very flexible," Trump responded. "I give the example -- I'm going to build a wall. I'm the one that wants the wall. I'm the one that can build the wall. It's going to get built. And by the way, Mexico is going to pay for the wall. I can tell you that. Mexico is going to pay for the wall.
"But -- and I used an example. And this isn't necessarily what was said, but whatever was said, the wall's 50 feet high. Is it going to be 45 feet or 40 feet? That could very well be. That could very well -- he wants it to be higher.
"That could very well be. But there's always give and take. There's always negotiation. And the best negotiator that knows what he's doing will make a great deal. But we need give and take in government. If you don't have give and take, you're never going to agree on anything."
Kelly then turned to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate gang of eight who once advocated comprehensive immigration reform, including an eventual pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens.
"You've been hitting Mr. Trump hard on this flexibility discussion with the New York Times, but his supporters might say at least his opening stance was tough," Kelly told Rubio.
"[A]s far as my record on it is concerned, I absolutely want to solve this issue, Rubio said. "And I did the best we could in a Senate that was controlled by liberal Democrats and Harry Reid in the hopes that the House, made up of conservatives, would take it up and make it even stronger. And I said that repeatedly at the time.
"I'm not just saying that now; I said it throughout that process. We do need to do that with this issue. When I'm president it will not be dealt with the way it was done in the Senate.
"It will be done first and foremost by bringing illegal immigration under control and proving it to the American people. And only after that is done can anything else happen.
"And it will be something the American people support. We'll see what they are willing to support. It's not going to be an executive order and we're not going to ram it down their throats."
Trump jumped back in: "I will say one thing, what Marco said is -- I understand it. He is talking about a little give and take and a little negotiation. And you know what? That's OK. That's not the worst thing in the world.
There is nothing wrong with that. I happen to be much stronger on illegal immigration. Sheriff Joe Arpaio endorsed me. And if he endorses you, believe me, you are the strongest, from Arizona.
But give and take is OK. And I thought what he said is OK. We may differ on the degree. But what he said to me is OK."
Trump said he has "too much respect for the process" to release recordings of his off-the-record interview with the New York Times.